Looking to the Future

Here on this website, I predominantly write about technology: Apple, iOS, the web, code, and the like in a mixture of original articles and link posts. I also put together a weekly collection of excellent podcasts that I, quite creatively, dubbed “This Week in Podcasts”. Roughly once a month I write about cabins too, and every so often talk about outdoor gear. The vast majority of the pieces I publish here, however, are at least tangentially related to technology. So if today you have come here looking for one of these articles, perhaps one where I hypothesize as to the future of podcasts or Apple’s next operating system, you might as well leave now: today I will touch on none of those topics, for I have sat down to, for the first time in quite a while, talk about myself. Myself, and my future.

Looking back, the only job I remember wanting as a young man was that of an oceanographer circa the early 2000s. Somewhere between the ages of ten or twelve though, that changed. After that indeterminate point, I had no idea what I wanted for my future besides the general desire to enter a STEM-related field. Thus I made my way through the equivalent of junior high and then high school, not unlike a ship drifting down a large river without a captain at its helm: although I had no concrete goal at which to steer myself, nor even a particularly strong desire to navigate towards anything but the path of least resistance, at those ages my potential avenues of pursuit remained fairly restricted. I did well for myself, though, both academically and socially: I got good grades, tested well, and even met an amazing girl I’m lucky enough to still call my girlfriend after more than two years together.

Although around this time I had little to no idea as to what I wanted to do in the future, I did, however, begin to formulate a picture of what I did not want it to look like. For some reason, this took the form of a “bring your parent to school” day wherein my future son or daughter would trot me out in front of an expectant classroom, brimming with pride, only to have me try — and fail, more likely than not — to make a mundane desk job seem interesting, important, and cool. That’s not to say that I have anything against desk jobs, because I don’t — in fact, many of the most interesting people I know do their work by sitting at a desk for a large part of their day — , but that’s just not me: I have never wanted that sort of life for myself, and so if I can avoid it, I will.

It was in this all-around good standing, both socially and academically, and with little planned where my future was concerned, that I turned eighteen. After a year essentially spinning my wheels at an unchallenging online school though, devoting a great deal of time and effort to incredibly demanding extracurricular activities such as the FIRST Robotics Competition, and spending three months out of state and away from home, the realities of college and real, adult life hit me pretty hard: turns out I wasn’t ready to shoulder all of those burdens and responsibilities just yet, and so I did not. One of the many advantages of a homeschool education is the elasticity of grades: although at eighteen years of age convention dictates that I would have already finished my last year of high school and picked a college to attend, it was just as easy to turn the clocks back slightly so that I had my senior year left ahead of me. And so, come fall of 2013, rather than start my freshman year of college, I began taking classes from a local university for dual credit — that is, credit towards both my high school and college degrees. This worked out remarkably well: I did excellent academically with a 4.0 GPA after two semesters, and got a taste of college life without all of the burdens and pressures that traditionally come with it. But although this approach positioned me very well to apply to college beginning in the Fall of 2014, it still left me with one large problem: paying for that education.

There has been a fair amount of discussion criticizing the academic machine lately, focused largely on increasing tuition rates even while the value of a degree continues to fall. Although I enjoy reading articles that dissect this, I have little interest in discussing it here: the way I see it, this perhaps exorbitant rate is the price of entering the workforce with a good chance at getting a good job so that I can possess the means to lead a fulfilling life down the road. Over-priced or not, this is the fee I must pay. As to how I would go about that, however, that has remained up in the air.

At first I placed my trust in my own achievements, relying on them to earn me either significant or numerous — or both — scholarships. Unfortunately, despite both a wide portfolio of extracurricular activities and a high school GPA of 3.99, those ended up netting me admittance but relatively little else. Framed in this way though, it sheds my next course of action in a rather negative light: scholarships were my plan A, and the next step was my plan B — that is the natural progression of these things, after all. But that’s not really how I saw it at all: I had two options, both equal in merit, and I chose one to start with because its barrier to entry, I felt, was much lower. I then followed it to its natural conclusion, and when it turned out all for naught, I shifted my focus to the other option. For me, that other option was the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or the ROTC program.

Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is obvious to me that I should have applied to join Youngstown State University’s ROTC program in the first place. My dad served in the Army for twenty-four years, his father in the Navy before him, and my grandfather on my mom’s side spent several years in the Air Force; needless to say, I have a strong background in the various military branches, and it would not be wholly inappropriate to call me an army brat. I also love spending time outdoors, and as an Eagle Scout I have had many of the shared values between the Boy Scouts of America and the U.S. Army instilled within my already. Discipline, integrity, respect, physical fitness, and compassion, to name just a few. But instead I spent long, arduous hours filling out form after form, asking for recommendation letters, and writing small, inconsequential essays in pleas for $250 here, $1,000 there, and $300 somewhere else. I am grateful for each and every dollar I received in this way, but at tuition nearing $20,000 a year, each year for four years, I would have had to spend an eternity just in the application process. Regardless of how I got here though, I eventually made the right choice: at the end of May, I applied for a full four-year scholarship as part of YSU’s ROTC program. And then earlier this week, a scanned copy of a letter appeared in my inbox:

“Dear Mr. Szewczyk,

“I am pleased to inform you of your conditional selection to receive an Army ROTC 4-Year (4U) Scholarship...”

After the elation and relief had faded, I began to think about how this would affect me and my future. For those unfamiliar with Army ROTC, it is a program administered by the U.S. Military through colleges and universities whereby students gain vital leadership and important life skills in a rigorous and disciplined setting. The program’s high school counterpart, JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, offers the same benefits except at a high school level. Contrary to popular belief, participation in either does not necessarily incur mandatory military service: students can enroll in JROTC throughout their high school career without entering the military at any point in their lives, and the same goes for college students except only for their freshman and sophomore years: after that, college students electing to continue on in their school’s ROTC program during their junior and senior years must serve in the military following their graduation.

It is also worth noting, in this brief aside turned lengthy explanation, that participating in either JROTC or ROTC at any point also does not guarantee that the student’s tuition fees in college will be paid: that is only the case for those selected for a two-, three-, or four-year scholarship. For these individuals, however, whereas their peers may enroll in ROTC as an elective and thus remain free of any obligation to serve after college, scholarship recipients must spend a minimum of eight years in military service following a graduation after four years. At this point you may have realize the purpose of this lengthy exposition: as a four-year scholarship recipient of Youngstown State University’s ROTC program, I now not only no longer have to worry about affording tuition, but also must spend a minimum of eight years serving in the United States Military upon graduation. “Must”, however, carries with it the improper connotations to convey how I feel towards this program and the mandatory service my participation in it, in this capacity, entails.

I was born on the military base Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and then spent the next sixteen years of my life moving, on average, once every two years: sometimes much, much more often than that, while at other times I went for long stretches of time in a single place. And I hated it: growing up, I found it incredibly hard to make friends and then leave them all behind one day, only to repeat the process again shortly thereafter. Looking back, though, I tend to romanticize the experiences I had and shed them in a slightly kinder light. They made me who I am today, after all, and for that I have no cause to feel anything but gratitude. The military has been an integral part of my life since I was born, then, and as of today, quite fittingly, will continue to play a pivotal role in it on into the future. As a result, I don’t consider this a forced conscription made out of obligation to the military for paying my way in college, but rather a unique privilege I have been given to not only serve in the world’s greatest military, but to give back to the institution that shaped me so significantly throughout my life as well. It is an honor and privilege to become a member of the United States Army, and today that honor and privilege is entirely mine.

My initial decision as well as the news I received today, then, both have and will continue to have a massive impact on my life going forward. At first, I expect this impact to remain relatively minor: I will shave slightly more often, maybe cut my hair a little shorter, wear different workout clothes when I go to the gym, and possibly go there more frequently; the time commitment in my freshman year is relatively minor. As time goes on, however, that influence and consequent demand on my time will grow, and that will change a lot of things: it will change how often and when I get to spend time with my girlfriend, what I do in my free time, the Scouting activities I can participate in, and — likely most important to you, my dear reader — will almost certainly change our relationship as well as my relationship to not only technology, but this entire industry. I still take great interest in everything technology touches, and I still have a passion for this niche I have carved out in the Apple blogosphere that you so generously inhabit alongside me. But that said, my priorities will begin to shift, because they must. They will shift almost imperceptibly at first, but then undoubtedly pick up speed as time goes on.

I sat down to pen this article today not to declare my impending exit from this space, though, but simply to give you a heads up: here is what is going on in my life right now, and this is how it will change the relationship between us that I have come to value so greatly over the last two years during which I have written here. If I do end up going AWOL — from this site, I mean — I want you to know why I did so. Because I have a great deal of appreciation for those of you who have stuck with me over the years, and also a great deal of respect. We are cut of the same mold, you and I, and the friendships this site has spawned are something I hope to never lose no matter where I go or what I end up doing. My focus may shift until this site and the writer’s craft I have come to love are no longer squarely in its center, but these will never fully leave me. And in the words of Bryan Adams, “I will always, always return.”